My husband, son, and I went with some fabulous friends to Cumberland Caverns yesterday, "Tennessee's largest cavern" and a "U.S. National Landmark" in glorious McMinnville, Tennessee. The cave was incredibly cool, featuring amazing formations, evidence of an 1812 saltpeter mine, and cold clear pools with nothing but blind crawfish and the bacteria they subsist on living in them. Turning out the electric lights they've installed throughout makes you aware of just how big, empty, and dark caves can be, just how small is your own existence alongside the grandeur and intricate exquisiteness of Nature.
But the privately-owned Cumberland Caverns do not trust that you'll get this message on your own. Instead, tacky and clearly psychotic owner (whose name I cannot find published anywhere online but will fill in when I get a moment) decided to exploit and dump his religious beliefs on this grandeur via an underground "ballroom," complete with a 3/4 ton crystal chandelier he bought and stuck into the ceiling of a huge open chamber, and a wacky "sound and light show" called "God of the Mountain" that is suddenly announced when you're deep in the cave and happens after you've climbed 96 steps to the top of the mountain then a bunch down into the available seating. It is perhaps excess to analyze the details of this "original underground pageant of light and sound"; suffice it to say you hear some old recording of a black gospel retelling of the opening of the book of Genesis, then the wacky owner drops Jesus in as though he came right after Adam, and everything is piped through accompanied by lightbulbs of various colors at various points on the cave walls and ceiling areas to indicate God (a blue-green light patch on the righthand wall), the sun (cool white light overhead and before you), the "tiny stars" (blob of white light on right upper wall), Jesus (white light on column of rock), and humankind (white light on more columns of rock). Humankind's ambition is portrayed by red light on a little recessed area of rock as a special treat.
Now our guide did point out that we did not have to climb the steps and go down into the theater area if we did not want to. Instead, we could wait 25 MINUTES on a small bench in the middle of the cavern and he'd leave some lights on. But it did seem like a bait and switch to me. Cumberland Caverns is heavily advertised as a National Landmark, but it is not, I learned after asking, a part of the National Park Service. This natural treasure is owned by one guy, and that means he can do whatever he wants with his caverns, whether that is simulating an "Old Moonshine Still," adding props to help you recall the 1812 saltpeter mining operation in all its glory, afixing a huge and absurdly tacky 1950s chandelier into the ceiling (then adding red, white, and blue lightbulbs into it and doing a little "light show" to "The Blue Danube"), or offering a cartoonishly over-the-top Christian "pagaent of light and sound" once they've got you where they want you.
Our guide did also note there had been some legal trouble about this little evangelical show, but it's obvious that the bench placed for those who want to wait behind and the little disclaimer of a short "Christian light show" has been enough to quiet the ACLU or whoever was taking them on. I was pretty angry that we did not get notification of this religious attack BEFORE we paid our $12 per adult and $6 per child to go on our tour, but, to be fair, after reviewing the brochure you could get before walking in the door to the gift shop (complete with rebel flag mugs), I do see that it clearly announces that "'God of the Mountain,' an original underground pageant of light and sound is shown on every tour."
So, they've covered their asses well enough, and the show was so goofy as to be easier to read as satire than sincere, but I cannot help but share my husband's plaintive query: "Are there no secular spaces left in this country?"